NEWFANE — History - what could be simpler? Things happen, they get written down, we read about it. For instance, the Boston Tea Party was an act of piracy, the revolution was a criminal enterprise.
Not so fast, you say? This take might have been the historical view of the British, but it misconstrues the noble acts of self-determination and free speech that is the real story of that conflict.
Or consider the Spanish-American War, which gave the Cubans a new American despot to replace the old Spanish one, along with a war in the Philippines that was instigated by racist U.S. troops and policies that incited Filipinos to revolt to gain their freedom from mistreatment.
Doesn't sound familiar? That's because the American view of that “splendid little war,” as the U.S. Secretary of State at the time referred to it, was that it put our country's might on the world stage, freeing Cubans and Filipinos from the unjust rule of Spain.
Most Americans also know the story of Custer's last stand, a military battle where bad leadership led to massive deaths of five companies in his 7th Cavalry Regiment; we all learned about it in school.
But schools haven't focused so much on the earlier Washita massacre, when Custer and his troops wiped out a peaceful encampment of men, women, and children in spite of their prominent display of a white flag of surrender.
Most Americans have heard about Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831, a desperate act of an enslaved man during which 50 or so white people were killed.
But our history books haven't spent much time on the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma. White people resented the prosperity of their Black neighbors in the Greenwood district (the “Black Wall Street”). After a botched lynching, a mob of white people attacked the entire business district, shooting, burning, and even dropping gasoline bombs from airplanes.
Between 150 and 300 Black residents were murdered, and as many as 36 city blocks were burned to the ground. Little wonder that this story hasn't gotten much attention from the dominant white culture.
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Stories in history don't tell themselves. They are recorded and filtered by those who do the writing.
Americans have been fed history as told by the political and military victors, through the eyes and pens of white men. Americans don't want their stories to be formulated through a foreign lens. Likewise, those who aren't white men notice how their very real stories have not been part of U.S. history as it has traditionally been taught, and have decided that it it is time to change that paradigm..
In the past few decades, previously ignored voices have begun to speak up, insisting on being accurately included in the American story.
Women have demanded recognition for their great scientific and educational achievements, for which white men received the credit.
Black Americans are demanding that racist and dismissive views that have prevailed for so long in our national discourse be amended to reflect their true lives and times and the real role they have played in our country's history.
Native Americans are declaring that broken and dishonored treaties between sovereign nations matter, especially when the U.S. government is the party breaking such agreements.
LGBTQ folks are demanding historical acknowledgement that they have always been valuable, if not always valued, members of human society.
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So why does the inclusion of hard facts provoke such an outcry from the right wing of American thinking?
Why are so many white Americans afraid to have students learn that the GI Bill, which gave a leg up to World War II veterans, gave that help to only white men, spiting the thousand of Black men who fought honorably in that war?
Why are people incensed that our children might learn about federal housing policy that denied loans and advancement to Black people well into the end of the 1900s, and, in the case of Black farmers, access to federal loans right up until recent years?
Why do we not want children to learn that the Homestead Act stole land from its Native inhabitants and gave that land, 160 acres at a time, to white male settlers (kind of like a free lunch) over a period of decades?
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No one would expect white Americans to enjoy reading this history, but not that many people expect to enjoy algebra, either. The value of history isn't whether it makes you feel good or not. Its value is to help us understand our place in the world and how it has come to be that way.
If we choose a Disney fantasy version of history while ignoring so much of the real thing, then we set ourselves up for the misery and struggles that emanate from a society that doesn't understand why so many of its citizens are fed up, outraged, defiant, and unwilling to go along with the fairy tale any longer.
One recurring complaint about including these inconvenient facts and stories in our educational system is that “they are just trying to lay a guilt trip on our children” (read: “on us parents”).
But guilt, like shame, is something we bring upon ourselves. If a person misses a plane flight that then crashes, killing all on board, that person may well feel survivor's guilt (now diagnosed as post-traumatic stress).
But the plane didn't crash to make the survivor feel guilt. The other people didn't make the flight on time to make the survivor feel guilt. We can no more blame the plane for the guilt felt than we can blame the facts in our history that put our racist policies and attitudes on display for study and reflection. Guilt and shame just prevent appropriate response and action.
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If we care about living up to our ideals of freedom, equality, and equal opportunity, then we had better start braving the facts as they are, not as how we'd wish them to be.
And for those who would just as soon maintain racist and misogynist attitudes in order to preserve white supremacy in the governing of the nation, a word of warning.
Demographics and a growing cultural consciousness make it clear that no matter how many election results you deny, or how many voters you suppress, white supremacy is on the wane.
Do you want its story to end with at least a modicum of self-understanding and reflection?
Or do you want it to go down like a Hitler in his bunker, raging against imagined enemies until the bitter end?